PM Modi says India shaken by coronavirus 'storm', US readies help

Biju BORO / AFP

India set a new global record of the most number of COVID-19 cases in a day, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the "storm" of infections had shaken the country.

"We were confident, our spirits were up after successfully tackling the first wave, but this storm has shaken the nation," Modi said in a radio address, urging all citizens to be vaccinated and exercise caution.

It comes as the number of cases surged by 349,691 in the past 24 hours, the fourth straight day of record peaks, and hospitals in Delhi and across the country are turning away patients after running out of medical oxygen and beds.

Modi's government has faced criticism that it let its guard down, allowed big religious and political gatherings to take place when India's cases plummeted to below 10,000 a day and did not plan on building up the healthcare systems.

Hospitals and doctors have put out urgent notices that they were unable to cope with the rush of patients.

People were arranging stretchers and oxygen cylinders outside hospitals as they desperately pleaded for authorities to take patients in, Reuters photographers said.

"Every day, it the same situation, we are left with two hours of oxygen, we only get assurances from the authorities," one doctor said on television.

Outside a Sikh temple in Ghaziabad city on the outskirts of Delhi the street resembled an emergency ward of a hospital, but cramed with cars carrying COVID-19 patients gasping for breath as they were hooked up to hand held oxygen tanks.

Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal extended a lockdown in the capital that was due to end on Monday for a week to try and stem the transmission of the virus which is killing one person every four minutes.

"A lockdown was the last weapon we had to deal with the coronavirus but with cases rising so quickly we had to use this weapon," he said.

India's total tally of infections stands at 16.96 million and deaths 192,311 after 2,767 more died overnight, health ministry data showed.

In the last month alone, daily cases have gone up eight times and deaths by 10 times. Health experts say the death count is probably far higher.

The country of 1.3 billion people is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, warned in an op-ed published Saturday in the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the United States said it was deeply concerned by the massive surge in coronavirus cases in India and was racing to send aid to India.

"Our hearts go out to the Indian people in the midst of the horrific COVID-19 outbreak," U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on twitter.

"We are working closely with our partners in the Indian government, and we will rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India and India's health care heroes."

The United States has faced criticism in India for its export controls on raw materials for vaccines put in place via the Defense Production Act and an associated export embargo in February.

The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine maker, this month urged U.S. President Joe Biden to lift the embargo on U.S. exports of raw materials that is hurting its production of AstraZeneca shots.

Others such as US Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi urged the Biden administration to release unused vaccines to India.

"When people in India and elsewhere desperately need help, we can't let vaccines sit in a warehouse, we need to get them where they'll save lives," he said.

India's surge is expected to peak in mid-May with the daily count of infections reaching half a million, the Indian Express said citing an internal government assessment.

VK Paul, a COVID-task force leader, made the presentation during a meeting with Modi and state chief ministers and said that the health infrastructure in heavily populated states is not adequate enough to cope, according to the newspaper.

Paul did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

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